Mentions | Summer 2020 ​


Emily Montes |


Here’s what you need to know about rapper Emily Montes. She is five. That’s clear from the jump. “My name is Emily,” she raps in the ethereal opening track, “and I’m five.” Her interests include Roblox and going outside (“I like playing Roblox and I like going outside”). Throughout her work, Roblox is a recurring theme—one song is titled “Roblox Is My Life;” her ad lib is “Roblox!” Where most child stars feel like the product of an overbearing stage mom vicariously living through her spawn, this feels like the experiment of a cool very online older sibling. In “Emily (Corona is Crazy)” she captures the current moment: “This virus is crazy! It’s the end of the world! Boom boom boom! (Roblox!)”


Venus in Furs |


I read this 1870 novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the namesake of masochism, to see if it still seemed scandalous by today’s standards. Only two parts do. One, when the dominatrix Wanda yokes our poor narrator Severin to a plough and has her servants drive him around a field. Two, when Severin signs a contract with Wanda granting her permission to kill him if she wants. Impressive to get that in writing. Otherwise, it’s mostly whipping. For a more condensed version, stick to the Velvet Underground song.


Scooby-Doo |


When the live-action Scooby-Doo first lit up screens, America was reeling from 9/11 and the Bush administration was prepping for the invasion of Iraq. But kids like me were more concerned with Fred’s shark tooth necklace and the gluttonous CGI dog in a tropical paradise. It left the impression of a country on perpetual spring break rather than at perpetual war. But the two aren’t entirely inconsistent. Spring break is about getting out of control, wrecking shit, and ignoring the consequences. Scooby Doo captured that: Monsters live on party island.


History Photographed |


Childhood photos of Elon Musk (~39K likes); Brooklyn Supreme, “one of the biggest horses in history” (~109K likes); smartly dressed children in the 1940s (~69K likes). The comments section is surprisingly tame. It’s the Uniqlo of the meme account universe (i.e., perfect). Fingers crossed that whoever’s running the account skips selling t-shirts and leverages all those millions of followers for a normcore dating app. 


Robert Christgau |


Seventy-eight years old and still doing his thing—that thing being holding onto the title of Lil Wayne’s oldest fan. His favorite albums of the 2010s include one by Billie Eilish (at #4) and three by Wussy. Still better than any pop critic under forty.


The Lost Writings |


Kafka’s final wish that his remaining work be “burned completely, without reading” has long been ignored. In this collection, New Directions seems almost to take the edict as a personal challenge. Here, we’re promised “every single page, even small notebooks filled with pencil scribblings”—the writer “in his entirety” in English for the first time. But is it really the fragments, false starts, and grocery lists that make up an “entire” person? The world may always want more Kafka, but I’m not sure there is more Kafka to be had.


Whole New Mess |


Before undertaking her sprawling, elaborately produced 2019 breakup album, All Mirrors, Angel Olsen travelled from her home in Asheville, North Carolina to a church-turned-studio in Anacortes, Washington and recorded sparer versions of the songs, working only with her voice and a guitar. Almost a year later, she has pulled back the curtain, releasing the recordings as Whole New Mess. To call it a rough draft would do it a disservice—it is its own thing, craggy and quietly tortured. Not every record needs to be an opus.


MyMechanics |


No technical skill is required to appreciate this YouTube channel; tool restoration draws upon universal anxieties and desires. How much junk is in the garages of American homes? By how many decades will our appliances outlive us? We live in a world of trash, but MyMechanics pursues an alternative vision. Why buy a brand-new arbor press when you can get a rusty one for $30? Pure technical precision plus ASMR audio: he shows you how he makes new screws.


The Concert in Central Park |


As far as live albums are concerned, bagginess is par for the course. In Simon & Garfunkel’s first live recording from 1982, the fey troubadours of ’60s folk-pop lean into the ramble. It’s a loose and heady jaunt through their hits, interspersed with languorous asides. (You probably haven’t heard their Tom and Jerry story, for one thing.) It’s nice to hear a large group of people laugh again.


The National Hurricane Center's Tropical Weather Discussions |


Stern weather reports from full-time forecasters. Anonymous pros with usernames like “Forecaster Latto” or “Specialist Roberts” divine our maritime future in Courier New font, predicting the unpredictable with snarky prognostications of the most violent storms on earth. Less a discussion, more a dictatorship of the weather posters. Blogging may have died at the hands of private equity and dubious sex tape lawsuits, but the written word lives on thanks to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s professional meteorologists.


Marginal Revolution comments section |


On David Brooks’s favorite free-market blog, libertarianism so pure and strong it’ll bleach your hair: “Voluntary exchange,” one user writes, “is actually what keeps us out of caves and is the reason many of us lived past the age of five.”


Empire of Passion |


No one feels good masturbating after watching a Nagisa Ōshima production. Empire of Passion is a testament to the director’s consistency in that regard. Loosely falling into the category of folk horror, this period piece finally answers the eternal question: “What is an appropriate punishment for extramarital sploshing?”


The 2020 U.S. Open |


What, I wonder, will be remembered about this year’s tournament, somewhat buried in the onslaught of recent news? The empty stadium filled, not with fans, but with corporate-approved messages (banners read, “THANK YOU FRONT LINE WORKERS” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER”)? Or NoVaxx DjoCOVID, the nickname for known anti-vaxxer Novak Djokovic, who flouted lockdown and contracted COVID-19, only to play a tournament that never should have happened? Or when he smacked a ball into the throat of a line judge–who was later doxxed by Serbian media–disqualifying himself and leaving the tournament without a single Grand Slam winner? Perhaps we’ll look back on it as a changing of the guard, even though it took several acts of God for the titans to give the new kids a turn. For what it’s worth, I’m confident that Roger Federer will be leaving on his own terms (not God’s).


The Old Curiosity Shop |


A frightening and grotesque Dickens novel, adulterated with the usual pummelling sentimentality. Daniel Quilp is the filthiest character in English literature, and Dick Swiveller is an idol for slackers and shirkers everywhere.


All-Dressed Ruffles |


The perfect chip—made in Canada, but sometimes found repackaged in the United States. The name is meant to be descriptive: the potato chip’s version of the “everything” flavor, but it tastes more specifically like a cross between salt-and-vinegar and honey-BBQ sauce. Salt, fat, acid, and a tiny bit of sweet.


How to Humiliate Your Peeping Tom |


Crude in both content and form, but the coarseness only adds to this handwritten fold-out book’s strange, cantankerous charm. Uneven cutouts and unexpected inserts like “Car-Lag: Six Days of Pain in the Car” abound. Susan Baker, who was at RISD in the sixties, at once embraces and parodies that decade’s counterculture, surveying the sticky territory between free love and perversity, drug-induced enlightenment and sloth, activist fervor and sanctimony. Nowadays, she maintains the Susan Baker Memorial Museum (pre-mortem).


Longmont Potion Castle |


Many people I like also like Longmont Potion Castle—the middle-aged, Colorado-based prank call artist who has released albums of his work since the 1980s. When my sharpest friend recently told me that she didn’t find him funny, I second-guessed myself and relistened to his calls. LPC occasionally punches up; he once kept Alex Trebek on the line for seven minutes, insisting he had a massive delivery of sod “from Siam” for the host. (Work never stops for Alex: “I didn’t order anything from Siam, and Siam is no longer in existence.”) Locals are the more common victims, trapped by his absurdist requests and stoner lilt. As he distorted his voice and adopted aliases like “Cokie Blaylock,” “Dr. Gordon Hucker,” and “Trinidad, from UPS,” I laughed out loud in the privacy of my “home office,” and then continued emoji-reacting to messages on Slack. 


The Untamed (陈情令) |


In this Chinese serial melodrama, two exceptionally beautiful men journey to quell demons, cultivate souls, navigate familial politics—and shoot each other longing glances along the way. Turns out the answer to government censorship of queer relationships is just to make everyone else a lot gayer.


Fools Rush In |


Maybe the only romantic comedy to ask the question: Is Las Vegas the compromise between Aguascalientes and New York City? Whatever the answer, the Hoover Dam gets a lot of screen time.


Kentucky Route Zero |


The premise is simple: you’re Conway, a downcast driver making a final delivery for a failing antique store. Complications include a giant falcon and his human brother, a museum of foreclosed homes, a pair of vaporwave robots, a distillery manned by glowing skeletons, and, centrally, a rhizomatic ghost highway winding through the cave systems of Kentucky. KR0 uses simple economics to subvert the traditionally libertarian ideology of gaming. There’s no becoming the best since there’s nothing to beat. You’re in debt and you’re on the clock. Choices stop being choices; maybe they never were to begin with.


The Communist |


Walter Ferranini, an earnest postwar Italian Communist politician, is disaffected with his party, his lover, and his ideals. “I’m a modest activist with a dilettante theorist inside,” he says, reflecting my own looping inner monologue. A few months ago, Guido Morselli’s novel read like a mild warning about a wave of less-than-inspired socialist politicians who might have followed a Sanders presidency. Now, it’s a bittersweet dispatch from another world.


What’s Good at Trader Joe’s |


Detailed commentary on hundreds of Trader Joe’s items spanning a decade of new releases and seasonal drops. These are faithfully logged in a late-aughts-style blog interface, seemingly for no one in particular. Each entry is rated on a scale of one to ten “Golden Spoons” and grouped in categories from “Blahhh” to “Pantheon Level – The Best of the Best.” I hope they are making some money off of this thing.


Bitter Wheat |


A 2019 David Mamet production that may never be seen anywhere again. John Malkovich played Harvey Weinstein-inspired lech Barney Fein in this abrasive sexual harassment farce. Previews in London’s West End received praise from audiences before a barrage of one-star and no-star reviews steamrolled any hopes of an extended run or a New York transfer. Clumsily directed by Mamet (no one else would touch it), but sharp and funny enough to justify its place among his more palatable anti-Hollywood polemics. The text has not been published, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.


"Shark Lords" |


The standout segment of the FX’s Cake series presents a mismatched team of Australians—two “Extreme Sports enthusiasts,” a PhD with dementia, an intern, and an unwitting deckhand—travelling the seas to “dominate sharks.” The joke is bestiality. 


Benelet Sprinkler Pool for Kids |


The kiddie pool has been around for about eighty years. Apparently there was some craze back then and a whole bunch of inflatable things got invented all at once. Since then, most of the improvements have been cosmetic and absurd. You can get a kiddie pool with six-foot dinosaurs or one with built-in beer koozies. But the general concept––a plastic inflatable pool filled with disgusting water for disgusting children––has not changed much. This year, during a heat wave in California, I bought a splash pad, which is just a very shallow kiddie pool that looks like a pizza with little jets of water springing out the crust. There’s just enough circulation to not have to worry about sitting in filth. I’ve found it to be a marked improvement on the original, but I understand why people feel nostalgic about these sorts of things and I will not judge them for it.


Nine Eyes |


I get the feeling that it’s not uncommon to know someone who once mooned a Google Street View car. The medium is now nostalgic; being surveilled by something as conspicuous as a spherical camera on top of a hatchback seems almost quaint. Jon Rafman’s collection of Street View screenshots, which he has updated during quarantine, recalls the retro pleasures of people-watching, traveling, and hiding from—or showing ass to—multinational tech companies. Even the sinister images (an emaciated cow dragging itself across a road, a woman dry-heaving on all fours near a curb) are much better to look at than, say, virtual museum tours. 

E.S.B. |


Where lust and apparent luxury collide, coronavirus be damned. “The truth is,” the About page reads, “different cruise goer go on cruise for different reasons.” But many of these reasons are similar: “Interested in meeting other horny males,” says FuckStud before his ride on the Celebrity Summit. A hetero couple seeks anything but “male on male shit.” Luv2meet of “Cumswell,” San Marino writes: “live…laugh…lust :).” The pandemic must loom over some of the 2,367 minglers, but most don’t mention it in their bios. A perverse and distinctly American necessity, where the melancholic want “love, care and affection” and the randy are “dying to fuck on the High seas.”


“America” |


The lead single from Sufjan Stevens’s first solo album in five years trades the fragile guitars of 2015’s Carrie and Lowell for thundering electronic drums and ten minutes of ambient techno. It’s his most politically charged work yet, but the message is muddled. “Don’t do to me what you did to America,” Sufjan pleads. Is he speaking to me? To God? To a fiscally conservative love interest? I’m at a loss, but the outro sure does slap. 


Democracy |


Joan Didion’s essential conservatism, here tinged with a postcolonial nostalgia, animates this novel otherwise populated by lovers rhapsodizing on the beauty of nuclear tests and an unnamed character referred to nearly a dozen times as “the Tamil doctor.” Now a Senator’s wife in Hawaii, protagonist Inez used to work alongside a character named Joan Didion at Vogue in the 1960s. The book’s settings (Saigon, Jakarta, Da Nang, et cetera) are interchangeable; these characters manage to find chicken salad and chintz chairs in 100 percent humidity. To understand Inez, imagine if an inscrutable social x-ray took to heart the real Joan Didion’s famous and slightly cryptic essay “On Self-Respect,” in which giving “formal dinners in the rainforest” is posited as a chief example of respecting oneself. Still, I was primed to enjoy a novel filled with weak, icy drinks, talk of “the American exemption,” Garuda flights, and halfhearted tennis. And I did.


The Six Times Future Raps “Nobu” on Jumpman |


John McPhee once wrote that you only need a few words (“such as corn shocks, pheasant, and an early frost”) to bring a scene to life. Future accomplishes this with one (“Nobu”).


Yewande Komolafe’s Asaro |


A bright, spicy, and—most important—unfussy stew of plantains and yams. (Just buy a thing of fried shallots, to maximize unfussiness.) I’ve made this probably four or five times this summer, and will likely make it four or five times more.


Soccer Mommy on Club Penguin |


The first time Soccer Mommy endeavored to hold a virtual concert on Club Penguin Rewritten, the fan-made Club Penguin copycat site, the servers overloaded, and the show did not go on. The event was later rescheduled, and this time, the music prevailed. Animated penguins lobbed snowballs at each other while a purple, pigtailed avatar for Sophie Allison wobbled around, offering something sorely missed in quarantine: communal transcendence through live performance. My computer crashed twenty-seven minutes in.


Jackbox Games |


Firmly in the category of thing you’re not sure you’ll continue to use “after all this is over,” these digital answer-the-prompt games employ a cheesy interface and are emceed by obnoxious, disembodied voices (see Quiplash’s “Schmitty”). Hours of extended family fun. May trigger anxiety.


Cool for America |


Many have complained that Andrew Martin’s characters are mostly well-educated and self-aware, with a real ironic streak. What is mentioned less often is how awful they are when they drink.


Inside the NBA |


On August 26, Kenny Smith walked off the set of TNT’s flagship basketball show in solidarity with the players’ strike. A new tenor for the broadcast on which Smith’s co-host Charles Barkley once dunked his head in a tank of water to try to break David Blaine’s breath-holding record—and more courageous than anything the political commentators or late-night comedians have been able to muster. 


The Price of Peace |


Portrait of the economist as a cool guy. Zachary Carter’s Keynes is an uncompromising aesthete whose economic theorizing is a means of securing the high life—art, sex, champagne—against the threats of revolutionary upheaval, international instability, and domestic reaction. The narrative ends almost seven decades after Keynes’s death, having traced the decline of Keynesianism from a theory of economy and society to a set of mathematized tools for dealing with economic downturns by way of deficit spending. Written before the coronavirus turned Steven Mnuchin into the candyman, the book introduces a Keynes who seems likely to remain ever-present but faintly heard. 


The Octonauts |


The only program my two small children watch: a British adventure cartoon about sentient animals who rescue at-risk sea creatures. The characterization borrows widely from British television culture—there are odd American accents (the lime green Engineer bunny is supposed to be from Florida, but she has a soft Texan accent) and pantomime camp (Kwazii Kitten is a Kentish rascal pirate with a flair for ghost stories). I have many questions: Is the show’s key intertext Heart of Darkness or Are You Being Served? Where did the Vegimals learn to bake? Why is the polar bear, Captain Barnacles, so small? But I’m grateful for children’s programming that isn’t entirely migraine-inducing.


Bialetti Moka Pot |


In the world of coffee brewing, the ritual matters almost as much as the grounds. There is something about this coffee maker’s four-step process that calls attention to itself. Once in position, it invites you to assume your own: in front of it, at attention. Left too long on the stove, the coffee will burn. But under careful watch, it comes out exceptionally black, thick, foamy, scorching hot. This pot needs you as much as you need it. 


Covid-Era UFC |


The absence of crowd noise gives the Ultimate Fighting Challenge the welcome impression of unlicensed brawling, lending greater emphasis to the labored breathing and extra-meaty thumps and thwacks. Fighters can now hear the commentary of television announcers in real time and adjust their tactics accordingly. The whole thing’s reminiscent of prompt-based performance art in a sparsely populated theater.


Watching Relic (2020) at a Drive-in |


Traffic was all backed up, so I only caught the last twenty minutes. I was also parked way in the back and couldn’t see much anyway. A guy in the car next to me peed in a soda cup, and The Goonies was playing at the other end of the parking lot. I liked watching that instead. From what I gathered, Relic is about haunted Australians.


“Unalienable Rights and the Securing of Freedom” |


“America is special. America is good. America does good all around the world,” Mike Pompeo said in Philadelphia on July 16, coining an apt mantra for tyro diplomats. The seating arrangement of the Commission on Unalienable Rights looked like a Giacometti sculpture that day, according to the Commissioner on Unalienable Rights. 


Big Friendship |


Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman’s ten-year friendship, described alternately in a therapist’s third-person (“Aminatou could have been upset that Ann decided to move away. But Aminatou wholeheartedly supported the move…”) and an all-knowing “us.” Flattening the authors’ voices into an even consensus gives the book the tenor of a PR statement, which, to some degree, it is: Sow and Friedman, who co-host the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend,” are a duo in their professional lives, and the book attends to the pains and resentments that have lingered beneath the surface. Hillary Clinton called their story “universal.”           


Intimations |


Zadie Smith’s instant volume of quality quar lit begins with an apology (for not being definitive; for existing at all and so soon) and ends with an autobiography (an itemization of all the ways the author counts herself lucky—“my physical and moral cowardice have never really been tested, until now”). In between she ponders some big things—(in ascending order of interest if not philosophical penetration) the president, the compulsion to write, privilege, racism, suffering, death—and glances back at a few characters she saw in the Village before withdrawing a big wad of cash from the ATM and leaving town with her family. Heavy lies the crown on the primo interpreter of the now, ever aware of the limits of her range of vision. One night on Zoom her mother tells her of a neighbor who killed his girlfriend and burned their flat down. It could always get worse.

C.L. |


The most accurate models of how badly climate change is going to wreck American floodplains have all been private—secret projections used by asset managers like BlackRock. Until now! This new scientific model makes for much more effective doomscrolling than anything on Twitter lately.


HBO Max |


Makes my shortlist for top three HBO video apps.


folklore |


It’s nice to no longer pretend, as I remember doing in 2008, that I dislike Taylor Swift’s music.


Too Much and Never Enough |


Unreliable narrator Mary Trump guides us through a mucky overgrowth of familial grudges. Mary’s poor alcoholic father—mistreated, disinherited, martyred! Eric and Lara, so unresponsive to Mary’s supposed good-faith attempts at reconnecting! Ground-breaking insights into the modern presidency? “The White House was elegant, grand, and stately.”


12-to-18-Month-Old Mountain Lion |


First spotted in Russian Hill, then near the Embarcadero, looking at itself in mirrored office windows. The lion had wandered into the city after being separated from its mother; for a few days, its territory was all of San Francisco. The news reports on the short, strange journey read like a modern-day fable. Police detained the young male without injury—surprising some—and released it in the wild the same afternoon. Two weeks later, its body was found on Highway 1.


Canceling Quibi |


This recommendation doubles as a reminder: If you downloaded Quibi around the time it launched, your three-month free trial is probably expiring soon, if it hasn’t already. There are many benefits to canceling your subscription; among them the opportunity to reflect on the passage of time. How much has the world changed since you downloaded the ill-fated streaming app? How is it that the videos, at seven to ten minutes, seem both too long and too short?